I do love hiking in the great outdoors (mountains! forests! wildlife!) but too little is said about urban hiking. I indeed have been bicycling around New Orleans but you see so much more when you walk. This past Sunday I did an almost day-long ten mile stroll through a big part of New Orleans, starting at our condo on St. Mary Street. Dare I call it flaneuring? This time I skipped the popular Uptown and headed instead for the Central Business District, the French Quarter, Treme, Esplanade Ridge, and Mid-CIty.
Tootie, our dog Rosie and I have been doing an about thirty minute walk every morning, going up to the statue of “Margaret” near the freeway, and then returning. This morning I started off with Tootie and Rosie, with plans to separate halfway through the walk. The three of us left our place and walked down St. Mary Street, a street of pre-Civil War mansions, decaying old buildings, and newer rentals.
We walked alongside Coliseum Square Park. In the 1980’s crime was so bad we were terrified to even come to this part of town. The park is now peaceful and lovely. Neighbors come out on their own and pick up bits of trash. There are lots of people with dogs.
About a half mile from our condo we arrived at our usual turn-around point, the statue of the nineteenth century philanthropist Margaret Haughery “Bread Woman of New Orleans and Mother of the Orphans.”
Rosie definitely likes Tootie more than me, but she still freaks out when the three of us do not complete our three “person” walk as a group. Rosie looked back anxiously as I walked away by myself, heading further downtown. I first had to walk underneath the freeway which is the onramp to the bridge over the Mississippi River.
Just past the bridge was Lee Circle and its vacant pedestal. It was known as Tivoli Circle until 1883 when a statue of Robert E Lee was erected here. I would support just calling it Tivoli Circle again but the name remains a point of contention. The Lee statue was taken from the top of the pedestal in 2017 in the dead of night under police protection. Earlier this year a smaller sculpture by the Black female artist Simone Leigh was put next to the pedestal, but only for a scheduled six months.
New Orleans was originally settled by the French and Spanish, but “Americans” began moving here in droves after about 1820. During the 1820-1860 period New Orleans was at the zenith of its economic status as the fifth largest city in America. The “Americans” kept a distinct culture from the local Creoles, including their architecture. The wealthiest Americans built wooden Garden District mansions. Almost all nineteenth century housing in New Orleans is built of wood, but in the area of town near Lee Circle many of those Americans built brick row houses similar to the ones in Brooklyn or Philadelphia. They must have been especially hot in the half of the year that is the summer here. Many were semi-abandoned by the 1970’s when this area was New Orleans’ Skid Row. Most of the existing such houses have been rehabilitated.
Further downtown I slowly gained on the skyscrapers.
The New Orleans office downtown is called the Central Business District. Jobs there have declined in the past twenty years and office buildings have been converted to hotels. Tourists now wander around the CBD.
I arrived on Canal Street, which separates the CBD from the French Quarter. On this Sunday morning tourists lined up at some place called Cafe Beignet.
Across Canal Street was the French Quarter. Before the 1980’s while New Orleanians had been eating artful cuisine for generations, in almost everywhere else in America a fancy meal was just steak and baked potato. I walked by two of the old school restaurants that have been in the French Quarter for over a hundred years.
I continued walking down-river through the French Quarter, mostly on Dauphine Street.
I reached the end of the French Quarter at Esplanade Avenue, and I turned left.
I walked on Esplanade across the wide Rampart Street heading towards the neighborhood of Treme, New Orleans’ oldest African-American neighborhood. It sits opposite the French Quarter, on the other side of Rampart Street. I veered left on North Villere Street into Treme. Pre-Civil War New Orleans had a large community of free-persons-of-color.
My intermediate destination was Treme Coffeehouse. I ordered an oat milk latte, twelve ounce, with one pack sugar, and sat outside and read an amazing The New Yorker article about thousands of boomers moving to Jimmy Buffett themed communities in Florida.
New Orleans is changing, just like places everywhere change. Two young women on the other table were talking about a friend of theirs who recently moved to New Orleans from Harlem NY because “she said a voice was calling for her to live in New Orleans.” Entitled? Sure, but compared to when Tootie and I lived here in the 1980’s New Orleans is much more cosmopolitan. A city like this needs new energy moving here. Young people from somewhere else are ubiquitous. I sense many come here knowing that they will have to create their own jobs if they do not want to work in restaurants. I now know several people living here because they can work remotely. Maybe New Orleans is finding itself as a place that people move to, just to be here.
Refreshed, I left to walk on. Long time residents of Treme are having issues with gentrification, especially Airbnb. The City has recently passed regulations that make Airbnbing more difficult. I crossed under the Claiborne Avenue overpass, then out Bayou Road.
Gentrification is not inherently bad or good, it just is what it is, depending on the situation. At the corner of Bayou Road and Esplanade, between Claiborne Avenue and Broad Street, a coffee house was festive at eleven-thirty on a Sunday morning; Tangled Up In Blue by Bob Dylan. The video here is only twenty seconds long.
I walked further out Esplanade Avenue, across Broad Street, then turned a soft left onto Bell Street into a neighborhood I have always called “Dave and Gail’s Neighborhood” even though they have not lived here for thirty-five years. Everyone else calls this area Esplanade Ridge.
Esplanade Avenue and Bell Street both terminate near City Park and Bayou St. John. I walked along the bayou then crossed on the Orleans Avenue bridge.
After the Treme coffeehouse my second intermediate destination for this walk was an outdoor bar called Wrong Iron, a beer garden that I had repeatedly seen on my bike rides but had never actually visited. Why not now? It was just after noontime on a Sunday. I am not all that worried about catching COVID but I still find indoor settings tense and being entirely outdoors like this just more relaxing. The garden was less than half full. Lots of people sat with their dogs.
In recent months restaurants in New Orleans, like the rest of America, have been shorthanded and crowded. I frequently found it easier on my bike rides just to bring my own food and have a picnic, usually at a bench in a park. This beer garden only sells food by third party vendors. I decided to break the rules a little. I ordered a local porter from the bar and looked for a spot where I could eat inconspicuously. I read some more of The New Yorker, this time about how Putin and rich Russians are playing the English.
I had brought two sandwiches, one of avocado and cooked mustard greens with lots of olive oil and sriracha sauce, on whole wheat (much better than it sounds!) and the other peanut butter and jelly. The beer was delicious. Coverage from Jeddah of the Formula One Saudi Grand Prix race was playing on the outdoor TV. The race was at night and appeared to have no spectators. The whole thing looked like a video game, even though it is obviously real. What is the point?
I was very happy sitting here, really. Why not sit here all day? I could call Tootie to drive over here and pick me up!
I did not want to be a deadbeat so after a while I looked at my phone and plotted a course walking home, three and a half miles, this time mostly on Canal Street.
Across the bike path from the beer garden is a 1970’s looking hospital which has been totally abandoned since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, stuck in Louisiana political muck. Locals seem to like the graffiti; it is even lit up at night!
The most famous New Orleans streetcars are on St. Charles Avenue. Canal Street, on the other side of town, lost its streetcars in about the year 1960. They were put back relatively recently. I applaud this but am skeptical about the design honesty of building new streetcars specifically designed to look old.
Lining Canal Street for about a mile is a new medical complex built in the past ten years. While the area where the hospitals were built was not upscale it still involved tearing down many many historic houses, a battle which preservationists fought and lost. Part of the pitch to get this built was that multiple medical establishments would be more efficient if grouped together in new buildings. I guess it was impressive to see a government actually finish something in such short order. Big medicine speaks. As you walk down Canal Street the huge buildings go on and on.
The medical complex ends near where Canal Street runs under I-10 and Claiborne Avenue. Off in the distance, closer to downtown one can see the now totally vacant giant 1930’s art-deco building of Charity Hospital, commissioned by Huey Long. It has sat empty since 2005. There are plans for repurposing it but I am skeptical.
On Canal Street below Claiborne I considered myself back in the Central Business District. The part of Canal Street just below Claiborne has been quite dingy in past years and it is encouraging to see new signs of life. The seventeen story Modernist former Texaco Building from 1951 had been abandoned for years but has recently been renovated into apartments.
Further down Canal Street I took a right on St. Charles Avenue and starting walking uptown. My condo was now a little more than a mile away. On the way I passed through Lafayette Square, which is surrounded by courthouses; federal, state, and local.
Does the Hale Boggs Federal Building qualify as the architectural style known as brutalism?
I walked back under the bridge overpasses, then into my neighborhood. I arrived home at about four in the afternoon.